Is All Mold Toxic?
Mold itself is not toxic. However, some fungi can produce toxins, which are referred to as mycotoxins. The type of mycotoxin that black and other molds produce are called trichothecenes.
Mycotoxins are difficult to define and classify. That may be one of the reasons that the information you read about black mold is not always conclusive. Because the trichothecenes released by black mold are not highly studied, they may be misunderstood. Some people say that the health and mold industries are full of scare tactics to make people worry needlessly about their health.
The disbelief that mold is linked to illness goes back for decades. In 1973, an energy crisis led to an enhancement in air leakage controls. But the remedies captured moisture. Mold disease began to emerge in the U.S. in the 1990s, and critics continue to argue that it’s not real.
People have been categorized as hysterical because they felt like their detrimental medical conditions were related to visible mold or musty odors. Some have been told that they’re imagining the symptoms.
Part of the problem is that mold grows everywhere, and it doesn’t always have toxic effects. For example, most people inhale Aspergillus spores on a daily basis without becoming ill. That doesn’t mean that this mold is harmless, though. If your immune or respiratory systems are compromised, you can develop one of the following issues:
• Allergic reactions
• Lung infections
• Infections in other organs
Aspergillus is one of the most common types of mold, but it can be extremely dangerous. People with certain lung conditions may have air cavities in their lungs. When the fungus fibers enter those cavities, they can accumulate and grow into snarled balls. This type of fungus can lead to death if it spreads throughout the body, a condition known as invasive aspergillosis. But this is different than the health conditions that are caused by black mold.
Black mold has not been studied extensively because toxicologists tend to focus on the harmful effects of hazardous chemicals. Scientists haven’t put as much research into natural toxins, or biotoxins. When studies have been conducted, they have often been run by people who may be unfamiliar with toxicology principles and standards.
Therefore, some academic articles include incorrect or confusing terminology. Some have many inaccuracies. Interpreting the data and clarifying black mold symptoms can be challenging.
Moreover, no standard has been established for the acceptable amount of mold in a building. Different people may have distinct sensitivities, which we will discuss in more detail later in this article. Even if your house has been tested for mold, you may not be able to use the collected data to tell you whether you’ll have health problems because of the fungus.
Listening to your body, on the other hand, may help you pinpoint a sensitivity. Symptoms of illness that are otherwise unexplained might tip you off to a mold problem. Still, it can be difficult to identify whether health conditions are caused by mold or something else, especially because mold is present in just about every environment.
The CDC states that molds can cause nonspecific health symptoms but there is no way to link one person’s symptoms with mold exposure. However, the organization recommends seeking a physician’s support if you do experience a health problem. The CDC also suggests removing traces of mold if it’s found in a building.
How Were Black Mold Symptoms Discovered?
There is ample evidence to suggest that mold can be harmful to your health even if studies haven’t always proven a direct link. Some of the first black mold studies were conducted in the 1940s. Scientists identified the S. chartarum fungus on straw. This explained why horses in the Ukraine were coming down with a disease that was eventually called stachybotryotoxicosis.
Symptoms included lesions in the mucosa of the mouth, nose and throat. In certain species and younger animals, the disease resolved itself. However, some animals that died had hemorrhages in their organs, tissues and lymphatic glands.
Scientists found that if they isolated the toxin and applied it to human skin, it caused irritation. They couldn’t produce a systemic reaction by injecting humans with the fungus, although they noticed that some people exhibited symptoms of the equine disease.
People who came in contact with moldy hay had skin problems, especially when they were sweating. They also had irritation of the airways. Humans who worked with horses or had close contact with contaminated hay sometimes became sick. People who wore protective clothing were less likely to become ill. But the symptoms produced by eating hay were different than those found in people who inhaled the mold spores.
It was eventually discovered and understood that the mold itself isn’t toxic. Instead, it produces a toxin that can be deadly. But the amount of toxic material produced by various molds of the same species can differ greatly. The levels of toxins that have been produced in the lab haven’t caused the profound toxic effects that have occurred in animals. Environmental samples also contain low levels of the toxins.
Black Mold Symptoms in Humans
Even though evidence of the harmful effects of S. chartarum has been noted for decades, the mold’s reputation for causing significant disease has only risen to prominence recently. Several reports have linked S. chartarum to health problems in humans.
Because levels of trichothecenes produced by black mold in one building may differ from those produced in another building, it’s difficult to prove symptoms based on exposure. Moreover, some of the toxic effects of these compounds are vague, especially with low exposure.
More research needs to be done to prove causality. However, studies and anecdotal evidence have shown that black mold may be associated with a wide range of symptoms. The most common is probably respiratory issues. You may be surprised by some of the less obvious symptoms, though.
Sick Building Syndrome
Sometimes, mold symptoms are lumped together into a non-specific combination known as sick building syndrome. Sick building syndrome is not associated with a specific cause, such as mold. However, that’s often because of the limited evidence that connects mold with disease.
There are some building-related illnesses that have been identified, such as Legionnaire’s disease and humidifier fever. These are not considered to be the same as sick building syndrome, however.
Some symptoms of sick building syndrome include:
• Irritation of the mucous membranes
• Dry cough
• Irritated, dry or itchy skin
• Trouble concentrating
• Sensitivity to odors
• Flu-like symptoms
• Hoarse voice
• Asthma attacks
• Personality changes
This is a long list, and these symptoms aren’t necessarily caused by mold exposure. The ailments could also be caused by outdoor pollution, volatile organic compounds, combustion byproducts, synthetic fragrances and cleaning solutions.
But researchers have been trying to pinpoint whether these symptoms can be associated with mold. In one study, scientists looked at 48 schools over the course of 22 months. About 28 percent of the staff members in these schools had complained about symptoms related to indoor air quality, including:
• Nasal discharge
• Itchy, watery eyes
• Increased airway infections
The researchers took samples of fungi from the outdoor air and found low levels of Penicillium and S. Chartarum. They did find these fungi in the indoor air in some schools. In others, the indoor air samples were similar to those taken outside, but swabs from wet carpets and walls revealed the presence of black mold.
After the mold was remediated, the rate of health complaints dropped to about 3 percent.
The toxins from black mold usually get into the body by inhalation. Therefore, it’s not surprising that they can cause respiratory distress.
A variety of respiratory ailments have been reported from people who have been exposed to black mold. Some of these are:
• Stuffy nose
• Pulmonary hemorrhage
From 1993 to 1994, 10 babies in Cleveland, Ohio, were treated for pulmonary hemorrhages. Half of them experienced a recurrence after returning to their homes. Investigators concluded that the lung problems were linked to mold exposure in water-damaged houses.
Symptoms of pulmonary hemorrhage may present as:
• Blood in the nose or airway
• Coughing up blood
• Acute respiratory distress
The CDC reported that the investigations did not prove that the symptoms were caused by exposure to mold. The organization cited problems with the investigations, such as the fact that there were no standards for defining water damage in a home or collecting samples of fungi. Because of that, airborne samples of mold were not calculated properly.
The CDC continues to consider possible links between black mold and this specific type of pulmonary hemorrhage. The organization proposed to improve sampling and laboratory analyses to help determine whether exposure to environmental molds can produce these symptoms.
In almost every study on black mold exposure, some of the participants report having asthma symptoms.
Neuropsychological Black Mold Symptoms
Although you may associate black mold symptoms with signs of respiratory allergies, the health effects can be far more wide-ranging. Mold exposure may affect the brain and central nervous system, causing a variety of psychological and emotional symptoms.
Many people who have physically suffered from mold exposure have complained about neurocognitive dysfunction. However, few studies have specifically measured the neurobehavioral changes that are linked to mycotoxins.
Some studies have found that certain mycotoxins from mold can produce the following neuropsychological symptoms:
• Impaired balance
• Vision problems
• Trouble recalling information
• Problems with executive function
• Visuospatial learning problems
• Verbal learning problems
• Psychomotor speed
One study looked at 23 patients who had been exposed to indoor mold. It found that older patients and those who had been exposed to mold for longer periods had more visual abnormalities and lung impairment.
In a 2004 study, researchers found that symptoms in people who were exposed to mold were similar to those of people with mild traumatic brain injury. These scientists observed that the number of mental impairments were consistent with the dysfunction that occurs with depression. However, these participants’ scores on neuropsychological tests were not consistent with depression.
These were not the only studies that found correlations between mold exposure and cognitive impairment. The authors of the 2004 study referenced a 2002 study, which also addressed the emotional and psychosocial factors that may affect people with mold exposure.
For example, many people dealing with mold exposure are also dealing with medical bills. Some may be involved in litigation. Many have to relocate while the mold is remediated and manage disputes with insurance companies. The researchers wanted to control for those factors in an attempt to ensure that they weren’t influencing an emotional state that would lead to poor scores on cognitive tests.
Based on the patients’ medical histories, it seemed as though the depression was related to ongoing physical illness as well as psychosocial stressors. Therefore, it was difficult to determine whether the mold exposure caused symptoms of depression.
More research needs to be done, but there is reason to believe that mold exposure is related to emotional problems, either directly or indirectly.
A larger study was conducted in 2009. In this one, patients who were exposed to mold in their home environments were compared with those who were exposed to other toxic chemicals. The researchers measured 26 neurobehavioral functions and reported the following results:
• People with chemical exposure: 7.1 abnormalities
• People with mold exposure: 6.1 abnormalities
• Control group with no exposure to chemicals or mold: 1.2 abnormalities
In all of these studies, the participants who were exposed to mold had trouble processing or remembering new information. They exhibited delayed verbal recall. Many even had color confusion or impairments to their visual fields. These symptoms often occurred along with respiratory issues.
Miscellaneous Black Mold Symptoms
A 1986 report indicated that the residents of a house that was infested with S. chartarum experienced a number of recurring ailments. These included:
• Cold and flu symptoms
• Sore throats
• Intermittent hair loss
• Leg pains
• Generalized malaise
Physicians were unable to determine the cause of these symptoms, which recurred in various family members for about five years. Blood tests came back negative for heavy metal poisoning. Toxic chemicals were not detected in the home.
However, an examination of the air inside the home revealed a high concentration of S. chartarum spores. The tests further revealed that trichothecenes, the toxins that are emitted by mold, were found in the air.
One of the sources of fungus was an uninsulated air duct that contained lint, carpet fibers and moisture. Numerous areas of water damage were found in the home. They had a black, ashy appearance and tested positive for S. chartarum.
Samples were extracted and tested on rodents. Within 24 hours, the mice that had been exposed to the fungus had died. They showed symptoms such as tissue degeneration and necrosis and hemorrhage of major organs.
The authors of this study indicated that the family’s medical symptoms were consistent with the findings of these researchers as well as previous studies. In fact, they asserted that, “We suspect that S. atra is found far more commonly in contact with humans than has been appreciated.”
In this case, the mold in the home was remediated. Health problems didn’t recur in the residents after they returned to the house.
Immune System Suppression
The trichothecenes that are produced by black mold can suppress the immune system, opening the door to secondary infections. If your environment is not properly ventilated and has a moisture problem, it could harbor more than black mold; it might be the perfect environment in which other harmful microbes thrive. This combination can be dangerous.
Does mold compromise your immune system or are people who are already immunocompromised more likely to experience black mold symptoms? Both scenarios could be true.
People whose immune systems don’t work properly are at a higher risk of developing medical complications from mold. That’s one reason that babies are more likely to come down with a mold-related illness.
But your immune system is designed to fight off foreign invaders. When mold comes in contact with your body, whether by being eaten, inhaled or touched, your immune system activates. You may feel run down as your body reacts.
Your immune system may successfully combat the mold, and you could feel better. But if you’re constantly exposed to harmful microbes, your immune system is always in gear, and you might feel terrible all the time. This constant activation weakens your immune system, and you’re more apt to get sick from exposure to viruses and bacteria too.
Some signs of a weakened immune system include:
• Frequent or chronic respiratory issues, such as sinus infections, pneumonia and bronchitis
• Slow growth
• Digestive issues
• Autoimmune disease
There is no concrete evidence that links autoimmune diseases to mold exposure. However, we still have a lot to learn about the causes of autoimmune disease as well as mold.
Because there are studies that show that people with mold exposure experience immunological changes, many experts are beginning to connect dots that they believe begin with mold exposure and end with autoimmune disease.
Is it an Allergy or Toxicity?
Because some people have black mold symptoms after exposure and others don’t, some experts say that the reaction is an allergic one. When an allergic reaction occurs, certain antibodies are activated. Those antibodies can be detected in lab tests.
In some studies, no association has been made between elevated levels of antibodies and black mold symptoms. Therefore, it’s difficult to understand whether people are suffering from a mold allergy, sensitivity or toxicity.
One of the reasons that mold sensitivity is so difficult to pinpoint and understand is that many symptoms cannot be diagnosed with clinical testing. Also, the range of black mold symptoms is so broad that it can look like other illnesses.
Molekule explains that a mold allergy typically produces symptoms that are similar to hay fever, including:
• Watery, itchy eyes
• Runny or congested nose
• Throat irritation
• Skin rash
Some people only experience these symptoms under certain conditions. Outdoor molds might cause allergies only in specific seasons. But black mold can cause symptoms throughout the year. Moreover, many people have black mold symptoms that aren’t consistent with allergies, as we discussed previously.
Sometimes, black mold symptoms are more indicative of asthma. Other times, the symptoms are neuropsychological.
Dr. Ann Shippy is a doctor who specializes in treating mold toxicity. She says that she has seen an assortment of black mold symptoms that aren’t consistent with allergies. Some of them include:
• Hair loss
• Weight changes
• Cravings for sweets
• Light sensitivity
• Muscle twitches
• Gastrointestinal pain
• Urinary incontinence
• Excess thirst
• Poor temperature regulation
These are signs of toxicity that stems from mycotoxins.
Mold Sensitivity Syndrome
Mold sensitivity syndrome is a term that some experts use to refer to the health problems that are caused by mold exposure. A 2017 review of the literature related to mold exposure states that patients with mold sensitivity syndrome may exhibit the following symptoms:
• Irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract
• Recurring bronchitis or sinusitis
• Unexplained fatigue
• Rheumatic symptoms that resemble fibromyalgia
• Pain or numbness in the extremities
• Mental fogginess
• Asthma or asthma-like symptoms
It’s difficult to come up with a clinical diagnosis for this syndrome because the onset of symptoms differs among individuals. People who have lived or worked in a damp environment for a significant amount of time may not have black mold symptoms for several years, or they may get sick immediately.
Cumulative exposure may worsen symptoms. The age at which someone is initially exposed may also be a critical factor in determining how the syndrome will present itself.
Genes may also play a role in an individual’s susceptibility to mold. There is some evidence that indicates that genes in the HLA region of chromosome 6 are linked to mold sensitivity. Unfortunately, genetic testing can be expensive, and it’s not widely used to detect a predisposition to black mold symptoms.
Some evidence indicates that people with autoimmune disorders are more apt to develop mold sensitivity syndrome. Other experts believe that mold can cause autoimmune diseases. However, many people still believe that mold and illness are not linked at all.
Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome
Black mold symptoms may not always be caused by fungi. Chronic inflammatory response syndrome, or CIRS, describes a group of symptoms that are linked with biotoxin exposure.
Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker first studied CIRS in 1997. He found that it could be caused by toxins produced by algae, microbiota in water-damaged buildings and tick-born microbes.
When investigating the health problems of people who spent time in water-damaged properties, Shoemaker found that a combination of chemicals and organic materials could cause black mold symptoms.
Some people experience an acute bout of CIRS before feeling better. Those individuals’ immune systems bind the toxins so that they can be removed through the body as waste.
Genetically susceptible people may develop chronic symptoms when their immune systems fail to respond to the invaders. The biotoxins stay in the body indefinitely, damaging cells and causing inflammation.
Blood tests rarely identify biotoxins in the body. The harmful compounds are transported through cell membranes and aren’t always present in the blood serum. Therefore, it’s important to look for the damage that these biotoxins can cause.
Shoemaker broke down the possible symptoms into categories and noticed that the health problems seemed to show up in the following clusters:
• Diarrhea, abdominal pain and numbness
• Congested sinuses and shortness of breath
• Impaired memory, including verbal recall
• Amplified skin sensitivity and tingling
• Metallic taste, watery eyes and disorientation
• Weakness, body pain, headache, light sensitivity and trouble learning new information
• Blurry vision, night sweats, mood swings, sharp pains and eye redness
• Joint pain, stiffness upon waking and muscle cramps
• Intense, chronic fatigue
• Difficulty focusing
• Dizziness and static shocks
• Intense thirst, cough and confusion
• Difficulty controlling body temperature and frequent urination
These symptoms are commonly misdiagnosed as mental health issues, gastrointestinal conditions, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, hypochondria, chronic fatigue syndrome and general allergies.
Shoemaker also recommends using HLA DR/DQ genetic testing. By reviewing international gene registries, Shoemaker found that 24 percent of the population is genetically susceptible to mold.
What to Do if You Have Black Mold Symptoms
If you suspect that black mold is causing health issues for you or someone you know, the first course of action would be to determine whether you’ve been spending time in an environment with water damage or moisture problems. Even if you aren’t sure, removing yourself from the environment can be telling.
Perhaps your symptoms go away when you’re on vacation. Maybe you feel better when you’re away from work on the weekends. If this is the case, you might want to have your home or office tested for mold. Remediating any moisture problems may also help.
A comprehensive medical examination may also be necessary. Tell your physician about all of your symptoms, and consider getting tested to rule out certain illnesses that may cause similar ailments.
Several biomarker tests can help you determine whether chronic inflammation is causing your health problems. However, these analyses don’t prove that the inflammation is caused by mold.
Still, if you’re concerned about mold, you may want to look into the Shoemaker Protocol treatment for biotoxin illness. Some of the steps in this protocol are:
• Removal from exposure – Additional treatment won’t be as effective if you’re continuously subjected to black mold.
• Removal of biotoxins – Shoemaker recommends using cholestyramine, a cholesterol medication that binds biotoxins so that they can be removed through stool. Welchol is another cholesterol medicine that can be used to remove biotixins. It has fewer side effects than cholestyramine, but it’s less effective.
• Optimization of the nasal biome – Some people with CIRS have been found to harbor a type of bacteria in their noses that produces a biofilm, which makes the infection linger. A nasal spray that contains Bactroban, EDTA and Gentamicin can eradicate the microbes in your sinuses.
• Gluten-free diet – There is some evidence to suggest that people with high levels of anti-gliadin antibodies can reduce their inflammation by avoiding gluten.
• Hormone balancing – People with biotoxin illness may develop a hormonal imbalance. Certain supplements, such as DHEA, may correct the problem.
• Correcting water loss and dehydration issues – In patients with urinary or dehydration problems, an anti-diuretic hormone can help.
Working with a physician who is knowledgeable on the subject and can recommend the appropriate laboratory test is often crucial. However, it’s difficult to find someone who is extremely familiar with black mold symptoms and treatment.
If your black mold symptoms are caused by an allergy, you may experience relief from:
Do You Have Black Mold in Your Home?
In general, black mold is found in cellulose-rich materials, which explains why it’s a problem in buildings. The mold grows abundantly on paper, fabric, soil and drywall. It can survive drastic temperature changes, and the cell walls aren’t significantly affected by disinfectants.
If you have any of the above symptoms, you might worry that you have black mold in your home. Because black mold symptoms are so varied, you should rule out other medical diagnoses as you investigate your environment.
Experts approximate that more than 50 percent of buildings in the U.S. have water damage. If water has leaked into a building and the organic materials haven’t dried or been removed within 24 to 48 hours, the area is susceptible to mold.
Much of this mold is hidden. It grows behind the drywall or under the carpets and goes unseen. If you’ve had water damage or a leak and didn’t run dehumidifiers or cut out the affected area, you likely have mold.
You may not even know that you’ve had a water leak, though. Poorly installed flashing around windows, doors and chimneys can cause water to seep in over time. Other areas where mold is likely to develop include:
• Water lines to appliances
• Air conditioning drains
• Shower pans
• HVAC systems
• Crawl spaces
How to Spot Black Mold
Many species of mold have a dark color. This makes it difficult to distinguish between black mold and other types of fungi.
How can you tell if you have black mold growing in your home? S. chartarum usually has a strong, musty odor. It may be wet or slimy, but it can also be dry and have a powdery appearance. It can look like soot.
You can have your home tested for mold even if you don’t notice visible signs of the fungus. Some of the most common places to test for mold in a home are:
• Behind the refrigerator
• Under the sink
• Beneath stacks of books, paper or cardboard
• In the ventilation system
• Under carpets
• On acoustic ceiling tiles
• Behind drywall near windows
You can purchase kits that test the air for mold spores. If the results are positive, you can usually pay for further testing that tells you what kind of fungus it is.
However, testing isn’t always necessary. Because most molds can cause health problems, you should remove any fungus that you find.
How to Prevent Black Mold Growth
Most homeowner insurance companies don’t cover mold damage. They consider it an avoidable condition. You might be wondering how to prevent black mold from growing in your home or building.
Regulate the Temperature and Humidity
Mold can grow on surfaces like clothing, shoes and books when the humidity is greater than 60 percent. Therefore, it’s important to monitor the humidity in a building and keep it lower than 50 percent.
That means that you should take measures to control the indoor climate when you’re on vacation. Second homes and vacation rentals are especially prone to mold if you don’t run the air conditioning consistently.
Mold spores can exist in your home but lay dormant until the humidity and temperature reach the sweet spot to encourage their growth. Mold flourishes in temperatures between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. It also thrives when it has organic debris, such as dust, to feed on.
Keeping your temperature below 77 degrees and the humidity below 50 degrees is a start. You should also clean regularly, removing dirt and dust from walls, carpets and floors.
Prevent Black Mold in Bathrooms
Do you have mold problems in your shower? Keeping your bathrooms free of soap scum and product residue can thwart mold growth. Because bathrooms are some of the most humid spots in a home, they are a feeding ground for mold, especially if you don’t keep them clean.
Preventing mold on your tub and shower curtain is easier than removing it once it appears. If you don’t keep this area clean, the mold can crop up overnight if the conditions are perfect for growth.
Wipe down the wet surfaces in your bathroom immediately after each shower or bath, if possible. Using a towel or a squeegee to dry the area can help.
If you notice a spot of mold, scrub it off as soon as possible. Using a solution of 1 cup of bleach mixed with 1 gallon of water can help combat mold growth. But bleach won’t be effective if the area is not clean.
The good news is that the fungus that grows on shower curtains is usually not S. Chartarum. It’s typically Chaetomium or Mucor. Some sources indicate that these molds are non-toxic. However, evidence shows that Chaetomium does produce mycotoxins. It’s just not as dangerous as Aspergillus or S. Chartarum. Mucor can impair the health of people who are already immunocompromised.
Also, black mold can grow anywhere in the bathroom. Make sure that you run the exhaust fan during and after showers. Don’t allow water to pool on the floor or near the baseboards. The moisture from wet towels hanging on the wall can also contribute to mold growth.
Mold grows everywhere, but it can become problematic if it’s proliferating in your home. Although concerns about black mold are prevalent, other types of mold are also dangerous to your health.
Not everyone experiences black mold symptoms. If you do, you might feel like you have allergies, or you could have a whole-body reaction that lasts for years.
While it’s not always easy or possible to identify mold as a disease culprit, if you know that you have mold in your home, you should clean or remove it. You should also take measures to prevent mold from developing.
If you do feel like mold exposure is impeding your health, working with a health professional who understands mold sensitivity syndrome, CIRS and chronic inflammation can help you treat the problem effectively.